By Catherine Festa, TSB Staff
Who is your hero? Is it someone who you personally know? Is it the quarterback of your all-time favorite football team? Maybe a historical figure? For Rev. Winston Douglas of McKinney, it’s his dad.
During the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas was one of the leading figures of the period. After spending several years in school training to become a pastor at then-racially charged Montgomery, Ala., Rev. Jesse Douglas led his people, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in strides towards equality.
Today, when Rev. Winston Douglas prepares a sermon at St. James C.M.E. Church on Watt Street, he can draw on lessons that his father taught him. Rev. Jesse Douglas is pictured above, immediately to the right of King (or, to King’s left, locking arms.)
“He was a pastor in Montgomery in 1965 when a lot of bad things were taking place,” Rev. Douglas said. “Even before he got to Alabama and when he was still in school, he got involved in student organizations that were non-violent. When he began pastoring he continued with various organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). He later became the president of that organization.”
At the time, Rev. Douglas was not even born. That wasn’t until 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated. His only memories of the work his father did at the time are through the stories. His father, in fact, is still alive and resides in Novi, Mich.
“From what my dad has told me about the events of that time, he never knew that what he and the others were doing was going to be very significant for him and future generations,” Rev. Douglas said.
In 1965, Rev. Jesse L. Douglas completed the highlight of his leadership by helping to organize the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march alongside Dr. King. The march included thousands of protestors who went on a 10-mile march to the capital building. At the time, Rev. Jesse L. Douglas was a leader of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (SLCC), which led him to be one of the leading figures of the march.
“In particular with the Selma-to-Montgomery march, there was a lot of planning and organizing that had to be done,” Rev. Douglas said. “They ended up at the capital of Alabama. My dad was very instrumental because he was the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association at that time. They had a large part to play in logistics and the route and where they were going to end up. He was very involved in structuring that march.”
Several days after the march, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Voting Act. This bill gave African Americans the voting rights and equality they had strived for. Rev. Douglas’s father played a part in this momentous piece of history.
“My father had this overall belief in what Dr. King stood for,” Rev. Douglas said. “He always instilled that in me and my siblings. The importance of the work that they were doing was not just an African American thing but also for justice and equality for all people. That’s something that has always stayed with me. And the way that they did it, with the non-violent effort.”
Along with his achievements with the march, Rev. Jesse L. Douglas and several fellow students also helped desegregate the Georgia State Capital building cafeteria in 1961. He and the others went into the cafeteria and sat down in the ‘white’ section. His son says that his father could pass for white because he was so fair-skinned, but the rest of his friends were arrested and brought to jail. That same week, he and the other students filed a lawsuit against the capital building and eventually won, officially desegregating the lunch area.
“It makes me so proud that my father played a role in bringing about the kind of change that this country has seen in civil rights movements,” Rev. Douglas said. “It helps me know that individual lives have made a difference.”
Nearly 50 years later and Rev. Jesse L. Douglas is not the one with his birthday as a national holiday. His name isn’t in the textbooks. He doesn’t walk around gloating about how he changed history. He is perfectly content with having pride in what he did … and he is the only one who needs to know it.
Along with his loved ones.
“Not all of the guys involved were in the forefront,” Rev. Douglas said. “Not all were the Dr. Kings or Malcolm X. The ones who fought and were on the front lines were very important to what took place, but they didn’t all get the spotlight or the recognition. Their contribution was very valuable but I’m just glad to know that my dad was a part of this.”
Rev. Douglas said he didn’t realize at the time how monumental history would judge the events his father was associated with. He claims it wasn’t until his late teen years that he began to understand why his father did what he did for our country. “I never really gave any thought to that until my latter school years when the real significance of what my dad and Dr. King had done,” Rev. Douglas said. “The impact of what they had done really worked.”
With February being Black History Month, Rev. Douglas was asked what message he would want to send out to African Americans not only in his church, but also all over McKinney.
“I would say for them to become aware of the history of what happened in this country and to appreciate the strides of what has happened in this country towards equality, but to also be aware that there is till progress that needs to be made,” Rev. Douglas said. “There still are racial issues and they can be apart of resolving those issues by continuing dialogue. Its not a forgotten issue just because we have an African American president. It won’t just happen, it has to be deliberate and intentional.”
Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas does occasionally go and speak about the 1960’s and the civil rights movement.
“My dad is just one of those unsung heroes,” Rev. Douglas said, “that, along with countless others, helped to make a difference in racial equality in this country.”
Rev. Jesse Douglas’ church, St. James C.M.E., is located at 316 Watt Street.